A lot of my author friends have been out there recently doing book readings and book signings at indie bookstores and well attended conferences around the country. But, last week I had a very special book sharing opportunity of my own, one that touched my heart deeply. I got to share my book with my sister’s first grade class.
Now, my book isn’t a children’s book, and when my sister first asked me to come in and talk to her kids I was a little uncertain. But this visit was supposed to be more about having her students meet an actual author than it was about having me talk about my book. They’d been able as a class to have good discussions about characters, setting, plot, conflict and resolution, and now Ann wanted for them to meet someone who had used all these elements to complete a published book. Ann had told me this was a smart class, but I’ve seen high schoolers struggle to understand these essential elements of story-telling. I was curious about a first grade class that was already capable of understanding and using these elements in stories they had written and illustrated on their own. On the day I visited the school, these stories were all being proudly displayed in the school auditorium.
Anytime you sit down in front of a group of 6 and 7 year olds, you do have to be prepared for anything. I hadn’t anticipated the kinds of things they would ask, or the directions our conversation would go, but I was comfortable enough to just set a basic direction and then see what happened. At one point I decided to tell them a little bit about my book. We talked a little bit about why it was called Cha’risa’s Gift, and one smart, little guy figured out her gift wasn’t an actual present she’d been given, but rather an ability she’d passed on to others in her family. As we talked more, I figured the children might be intrigued by my character, Ahote, because of his experiences with going to school. I told them how the people in Ahote’s village hadn’t wanted their children to go away to the Indian boarding school, but that the soldiers had come and taken their children anyway. I explained how after several years at this boarding school, Ahote no longer knew where he fit in. He felt different from the people in his village now, and also well aware of the many ways he was still different from white men. He wasn’t sure where he belonged anymore. After telling the kids Ahote’s backstory, I asked them if they had ever felt different from everybody else.
The conversation that ensued took up the rest of the class period. It turns out they all felt different, but unlike Ahote, they were not confused by their differences, instead they utterly embraced them. One little ginger haired boy, looking just like he’d come off the pages of an Irish story, told me he was different because his dad was from Spain. The little blue eyed girl next to him proudly announced that she was different because she had been born in Germany and that her mom still spoke German to her. Another little boy told me he was different because he’d been born in Japan. I had one little boy stand up and start bouncing all around with excitement as he told me that he was different because his family was Irish and that meant they all were Vikings. Another little boy told me he was different because he could climb so very high, as high as a bird, and that he had eagle eyes with which he could see everything. So I told him about another character in my book that had a similar ability; that this character could see through the eyes of a bird and knew what it felt like to fly. Well, this little boy went on to tell me that he also could fly, and proceeded to let loose such a rich description of his own experiences as a bird that I felt very encouraged for the future of story-telling. My sister let the story go on for a bit, but it was clear this little fellow would be a long while before he ran out of steam, so she kindly but firmly told the boy he needed to wrap it up.
There was time for one last question, and so I picked a little blonde girl in the back row. She looked me right in the eye and said, “Is it true you sing opera? And will you sing a song for us?”
I looked over at my sister. She was grinning ear to ear. “I told them you sang,” she happily confessed.
“Oh? And how did this come up?”
Ann explained that the art teacher often gave the kids their instructions for the day in a faux operatic voice. Apparently this was enough for the kids to believe they loved opera. Well, thanks to my sister, it was clear I had to sing a song. The only problem was I hadn’t sung, let alone warmed up my voice, in weeks. I’d been so focused on getting ready for the Brains to Books Cyber convention, and on making my National Novel Writing Month goals for April, that words not songs had dominated all my energies.
I got the kids to agree to do a warm up with me before I sang to them. So, with varying degrees of aptitude, the whole lot of us did a series of five note scales. I took my enthusiastic singers up as high as I dared. Then, there was nothing left to do but start singing, I launched into a passable acapella performance of an Italian art song, “Se tu ma’ami.” I was a little tentative at first, but it didn’t take long before I was in character, flirting with the shepherd boy, but also scolding him for thinking I would follow his lead. All the while, I kept a wary eye out for my sister, wondering if soon I too would be told to wrap it up. The entire class, plus a few passersby outside the door, followed my performance closely all the way to the end of the song, and then I received a very enthusiastic round of applause.
When the lunch bell rang, I watched the kids file out the door. My mind went back to our conversation on our differences. It struck me that there has always been this emphasis in our society on who is different and who belongs. I couldn’t help but think of these children, so many of whom came from families who had been U.S. citizens for a generation or less. This is not something you’d have ever been aware of when you first walked into this classroom. For all that they claimed to be different, at first sight I could not have told you which of these children had a long American pedigree, which were first generation American, and which ones hadn’t even been born in this country. I would have told you I saw more of what these kids had in common than I did of how they were different. They were all learning together in my sister’s classroom. Together they’d mastered how to read, how to tell a story, how to do math. They all broke bread together and played together. And apparently they all shared the same love of listening to people sing in full operatic voice.
Every class has a personality, much as each child has a personality. They are shaped by several factors. When things go right, these include loving and supportive home environments, and good teachers whose own unique gifts are supported and encouraged to help them impart learning. I’m sure I will never truly know exactly how Ann’s class this year resulted in such a perfect environment for learning. But here’s what I do know, these children with their differences, their commonalities, their curiosity, creativity, and love of opera are a reason to hope for the future.
In case you would also like to hear my full on operatic tones, here is a recording of me singing “Se tu ma’ami. It isn’t the acapella version the class got to hear. It’s from back in the day when I was a voice teacher, when I often sent my students home with a copy of the songs to practice with.